The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a dire toll, and not just on the people who have become ill and the effects on their families, but also on the healthcare systems themselves. Whether we’re talking about hospital staff dealing with burnout, inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the pandemic, reduced revenue or other challenges, nearly every aspect of the healthcare system has been stretched to its breaking point.
Worse, the industry as a whole must deal with this hard-to-swallow pill: Covid is not the last crisis we’ll face. The reality is that crises are plentiful, and the next one is likely just over the horizon. We can’t know if it will be another pandemic, a natural disaster or a financial crash, but we can be sure it’s coming.
The good news is that this certainty is actually an opportunity. As healthcare organizations get through the challenges of the current pandemic, they have the chance to rebuild their systems to be stronger and more resilient.
My expertise and background in healthcare comes from the partnerships and collaborations I’ve had over the years within the industry. I have built and facilitated leadership experiences with various healthcare teams and created a line of products and technology-based applications specifically for healthcare. This has helped lead to the following insights.
The Impact Of Crises On Healthcare Organizations
The pandemic has been a perfect storm that hit organizations from several angles including financial performance and staff morale.
On the financial front, most healthcare providers already operated within tight margins, and the pandemic has squeezed them even tighter. For example, many hospitals have had to deprioritize the type of elective procedures that generate the most revenue. They’ve had to do this both to accommodate large numbers of Covid patients and as part of lockdown measures to prevent further viral spread.
A second drain on organizations’ funds is the urgent and costly need to fill staff shortages. Many hospitals have compensated for shortages by hiring traveling clinicians in short-term roles that pay a much higher hourly rate than their full-time counterparts. This also negatively impacts staff morale and organizational stability as hospital employees are incentivized to leave full-time positions for higher-paying contract roles.
The net result of these changes is less money coming in and more money being paid out. Complicating the matter, staff burnout has skyrocketed as the pandemic has dragged on. In fact, 66% of ICU nurses in one survey reported that they’d considered leaving their job due to the pandemic. They’re exhausted. Healthcare providers at all levels are burning out from the drain of overtime, fear of spreading illness to their families and moral injury they’ve experienced during the pandemic. Heartbreak from watching patients die alone, resentment over patients who refused vaccinations and stress from having to ration and reuse PPE in the early days of the pandemic added to an emotional and mental toll, and ultimately, to staff attrition.
Current Solutions Aren’t Working
Losses for healthcare organizations during crises — like those of the magnitude we’re seeing right now — are not sustainable. To recover, organizations must stem the flow, but so far most efforts have been unsuccessful. The problem lies with leaders presenting the wrong solutions; we’re pushing healthcare workers to be more resilient without giving them the necessary support.
Throughout Covid, the world has expected a lot out of our healthcare workers. We’ve heard them called “heroes” who are “fighting on the front lines of Covid.” Motivation has its place, but when healthcare workers are drowning, nice words aren’t nearly enough. By recognizing staff’s struggles and still choosing not to make tangible changes, employers may actually be driving more burnout, not motivation. Offering insignificant and uninspiring rewards like free snacks is similarly ineffective.
If your organization uses tactics like these, I encourage you to stop. Furthermore, if your current system isn’t working during this crisis, you can bet that it won’t work for the next one, either.
Creating Supportive Systems
In short, only real change at the organizational level will solve problems like low staff morale. The healthcare industry cannot pressure healthcare workers to be more personally resilient, but it can create more resilient systems to support them.
What makes a resilient system? Resilient systems adapt to challenges. When a crisis hits, they bend; they don’t break. These systems adjust to large influxes of patients and changes in protocols because they’ve already planned for it.
Above all, resilient systems don’t put the burden entirely on staff when demands increase. Healthcare workers currently operate in a culture of fear and false encouragement. To shift the culture to one of genuine support, it’s critical for leaders to serve as examples for their staff, modify protocols and systems to better meet their employees’ needs, learn from previous crises and adopt tactics from other industries.
Be A Crisis-Ready Leader
Creating resilient systems isn’t easy, and as the current crisis has proven, we can’t force change to happen from the ground up — it needs to start with leadership. It’s up to leaders to become crisis-ready themselves before they can create crisis-ready systems.
The healthcare industry tends to be fairly insular, but leaders can learn a great deal by looking outside their organizations. For inspiration, consider the Chilean Mining Accident of 2010. The miners found themselves in a life-or-death situation, but instead of insisting that they were the experts, they looked to astronauts, military personnel and specialists across many other fields to solve the problem. Healthcare leaders can similarly look toward other industries for ideas on how to effectively manage disruptive crises.
By learning what went wrong during Covid and what works in other industries, you can become a resilient leader. Resilient leaders, in turn, create resilient systems, and that creates resilient employees. With systems and a company culture designed to adapt to challenges, you can ensure that your organization will be better prepared to handle the next crisis that comes, no matter what it involves.